Milan is the second largest city in Italy with a population of about 1.3 million, but the combined metropolitan area, including bordering provinces, has over 4 million inhabitants. Milan was originally founded by the Celts, but the city was captured by the Romans in 222 BC. Milan is a gateway to several adjacent European countries, and in 1796 Milan was conquered by the French under Napoleon. Later, it became part of the Austrian Empire, and finally, it was taken over by the Kingdom of Sardinia which became the Kingdom of Italy. Today, Milan is an important center for business, finance, transportation and industry, as well as a leading metropolis in fashion, design, international arts and music. The people of Milan are always on the move, and driving in the city is more difficult than in other Italian cities because tramways run in the middle of the streets. Unlike southern Italy, Milan has a lot of smog because it is in a valley surrounded by mountains that retain its industrial pollution.
The main square in Milan is called Piazza del Duomo ("Cathedral Square"). The major buildings around the square are the majestic white marble Milan Cathedral, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II with its great archways, and the Royal Palace of Milan which was the seat of government for many centuries, but which today hosts the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Cathedral Museum. The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is a shopping center featuring the names of some of the best known fashion designers in the world, such as Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Prada, Ferragamo and Fendi.
The Milan Cathedral (Duomo) is undoubtedly the most prominent of all the buildings in the Piazza del Duomo because of its Gothic design with a façade of white, elaborately carved marble and multiple spires. The first stone of the Cathedral was put in place in 1386, but its last gate was only finished 579 years later, in 1965. It is the largest cathedral in Italy.
The Milan Baptistery beneath Milan's duomo was discovered during the excavations to build the Duomo metro station from 1961 to 1962. The excavations discovered a well-preserved stratification approximately four meters in height that shows the development of the city in this area between the 1st and 20th century. The layers show the progressive increase in height of the urban surface and the succession of buildings constructed during the Middle Ages where previously there had been open spaces. The structures of the baptistery date to the end of the 4th century when Ambrose ordered the construction of the Baptistery of San Giovanni alle Fonti. The baptistery had an octagonal pool, 5.5 meters wide and 80 centimeters deep. During baptismal rites, a complex hydraulic system was used to fill the pool. Some of the conduits for water are still recognizable although some parts are missing. It is believed that in this baptismal pool St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, baptized St. Augustine.
The Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio (St. Ambrose) in Milan, was built by the bishop Aurelius Ambrosius of Milan (later canonized as Saint Ambrose) in an area where numerous martyrs of the Roman persecutions had been buried. The basilica was built in 379-386 and consecrated in 387 A.D.; it is one of the oldest churches in Milan. The building was restored and reconstructed through the ages and it was rebuilt in the Romanesque style in the 12th Century.
Chapel in S. Victor in Ciel d'Oro
Within the Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio, the chapel of S. Victor is a rare example surviving from the early Christian period in Milan. It was commissioned by bishop Materno for the remains of the martyr Victor. It was constructed in the 4th century before the Ambrosian basilica. According to tradition, Ambrose buried the body of his brother, Satiro around 375 A.D. on this spot. The chapel remained isolated for various centuries until it was included in the complex of the basilica in the 16th century. The chapel had to be reconstructed after it was badly damaged during World War II.
The importance of the chapel derives from the splendid mosaic decoration dating to the 5th century which depict bishop Ambrose realistically. The center of the cupola is covered with golden tiles creating a golden heaven (ciel d'oro) surrounding a mosaic of the bust of Saint Victor. An antechamber preceding the ancient chapel of S. Victor "in Ciel d'Oro" is closed off by a high wrought iron gate dating to the 18th century. The chapel and the adjacent chambers were renovated in 1738. The walls are decorated with frescoes by Ferdinando Porta depicting episodes from the life of S. Ambrose.
The reliquary in the crypt of the Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio holds the relics of S. Ambrose, the patron saint of Milan in the center dressed in white pontifical vestments, and the martyrs Gervasius and Protasius flank Ambrose with red tunics while holding silver palm branches.